Death Comes to the Archbishop: Character Profiles

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Character Profiles

Death Comes for the Archbishop includes too many colorful characters to sketch in the space of this study guide. Among the most important are:
 

  • Father Jean Marie Latour is the missionary priest from Ohio who is appointed the first bishop of what is now New Mexico. He is not, we learn, the most obvious choice for the job: as his friend Vaillant reflects late in the novel, “To man’s wisdom, it would have seemed that a priest with Father Latour’s exceptional qualities would have been better placed in some part of the world where scholarship, a handsome person, and delicate perceptions all have their effect; and that a man of much rougher type would have served God well enough as the first Bishop of New Mexico… But God had his reasons” (pp. 251-52). As we watch Latour’s ministry unfold, we see that he is a man of integrity (though not perhaps unimpeachable, as his indulgent estimation of Kit Carson late in life may imply), authenticity (as Jacinto thinks highly of him for in III.2), and true compassion for the people he seeks to serve.
  • Father Joseph Vaillant—nicknamed “Blanchet” (Whitey)—has been Latour’s close friend and partner in mission since their days in seminary. Latour, in fact, successfully persuaded Vaillant to come to the New World with him over the objections of Vaillant’s father. Vaillant has come to regard that moment as the defining moment of his life; readers get the sense that he almost regards it as salvific, as a moment through which God irrevocably claimed him for his true vocation. Vaillant comes to a gradual awareness of this vocation over the course of the novel, moving from a desire to “go no further” (see I.3) to a fervent desire to travel as far into the wild as possible, seeking lost Catholics (see VIII.3). He is particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary. He is also particularly gifted in enjoying the temporal pleasures of life, but never immoderately or to his shame; rather, these worldly pleasures seem to undergo a kind of “transubstantiation” at his hands as he transforms them into a spiritual energy that unites different kinds of people together. From common peasants to the Pope himself—all share a connection to each other, though they know it not, through Father Vaillant.
  • Magdalena Valdez is the abused wife of American settler Buck Scales who is rescued from a torturous existence by the intervention of Latour and Vaillant. Although she is a special person in her own right, for the novel’s purposes, she seems to represent nothing so much as another of those “miracles” for which Latour is looking, miracles of “great love” (p. 50). Magdalena, like that unexpected plant, is a bloom of beauty in the midst of a harsh wilderness. Having known no love from Scales, Magdalena finds love first from Kit Carson and his wife—it is no accident, surely, that Cather choses to have Magdalena identify Carson by his full name, “Christóbal” (p. 74), or Christopher, which means “Christ-bearer”—and then in “the household of God” (p. 77). This is the kind of humane, loving work Latour and Vaillant know they have been called to do (“Magdalena, calmed by food and kindness…”, p. 71)—the kind of shepherding that mirrors the work of Jesus more than the behavior of the clergy the New Mexicans have known heretofore (cf. Carson’s criticism of the promiscuous, child-begetting Padre Martínez in Taos, “an old scapegrace, if ever there was one,” p. 76; and of the miserly Padre Lucero, whose exorbitant fees exemplify the love of money the Bible says is the root of all evil—1 Tim. 6:10!).
  • Christopher “Kit” Carson really existed: he was “an American hunter, Indian agent, and soldier… [and] one of the best-known and most competent guides available to explorers of the western United States” (Biography, © 2006 through a partnership of Answers Corporation). He was also, unfortunately, an agent of terrible destruction upon the Navajo people. Circa 1863, Carson “waged a brutal economic war against the Navajo, marching through the heart of their territory to destroy their crops, orchards and livestock…  When Utes, Pueblos, Hopis and Zunis, who for centuries had been prey to Navajo raiders, took advantage of their traditional enemy’s weakness by following the Americans onto the warpath, the Navajo were unable to defend themselves. In 1864 most surrendered to Carson, who forced nearly 8,000 Navajo men, women and children to take what came to be called the ‘Long Walk’ of 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they remained in disease-ridden confinement until 1868” (PBS, “The West,” http:www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/carson.htm). While the novel does not entirely shirk away from this aspect of the historical record, it presents him overall in a favorable light—another “miracle” of sorts, who connects the Anglo and the native worlds through love, even as Latour and Vaillant are seeking to do.  He thus emerges as a kind of foil to the two priests.
  • Eusabio is Father Latour’s Navajo guide early in the novel, and remains his life-long friend, even making a special effort to be at the old Archbishop’s deathbed. His son, Manuelito, grows to become the leader of the Navajo—and must, consequently, face the dreaded Long Walk and its aftermath. Eusabio and his people represent an “incarnational” approach to living in the land just as Latour and Vaillant demonstrate an incarnational approach to ministering among them. This “accommodation” of self to the world, rather than vice versa, seems one of the key virtues in Cather’s novel—a spiritual humility in accepting one’s place in the world, rather than an insistence upon creating a new one.
  • Madame Olivares is a noble woman whom we get to know far better than we do her late husband.  She is, in short, “a cultivated woman” (p. 176). True, some rumors exist—perpetuated in part by her servants, who do it as an unusual way of taking pride in her; and in part by Don Antonio’s brothers, who seem to resent his success—that she is unfaithful to her husband; but these rumors are never proven to have any basis in fact. The worst that can be said of her objectively is that “[s]he was a trifle vain” (p. 177)—or perhaps more than a trifle: her refusal to admit her true age upon her husband’s death nearly costs the Church an inheritance of land—but her ultimate willingess to admit her ages emerges as one of the more memorable “miracles of love” in the novel.

 

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